Will 2015’s Free Agency Impact Upcoming NFL Contract Negotiations

This has probably been the most fast paced free agency period in recent memory. With Greg Hardy signing today with the Cowboys, the final tier 1 free agent is off the market, but in looking at who is left I would say that most of our second tier players are also gone and the NFL is already into Phase III of free agency. Normally that happens in another week or two.  Instead teams were incredibly aggressive, signing some very expensive contracts within days of the start of free agency, and I wonder if this will potentially have an impact on player decisions in years to come.

Normally if players are presented with an opportunity to sign an extension in their walk year they usually do so as long as they don’t feel that are being low balled. Football is a violent game and one play can end a career without another dollar being earned. That usually gives the team a great deal of leverage in negotiations.  To add to that leverage is the threat of the franchise tag that can block a player from free agency. Plus free agency can be a bit of a crapshoot as teams seem to go in cycles with money they allocate to certain positions.

But this year was something unique. With the cap rising at a rapid pace and teams looking to meet cash minimum spending requirements, free agency was like winning the lottery for many players. Contract after contract came in and the prices were outrageous compared to where things were even just a few months ago. That’s not to say this was the first time this has ever happened but it was one of the first times it seemed to hit on so many different positions.

In a rarity there were actually two players generally considered best at position that were able to hit free agency due to contractual manipulations that prevented their former teams from  applying that tag. Ndamukong Suh created a media firestorm around him that saw the Dolphins give him a contract that was closer to that of a top tier quarterback than a defensive tackle. Darrelle Revis followed that up with 39 million fully guaranteed from the Jets, who were desperate for help in the secondary.

The last time we had players of that caliber hit free agency was back in 2012 when both Mario Williams and Peyton Manning were available. Manning didn’t want to play the game and settled on a reasonable price to go to Denver while Williams signed a record breaking contract in Buffalo where desperation from the Bills pushed the price more than the player’s ability.  It was similar to the Dolphins push for Suh.

But it was not just the superstars cashing in. Byron Maxwell signed for over $10 million a season. Players who were castaways in 2014, like Antonio Cromartie and Brandon Flowers got massive contract. Jeremy Maclin, who has had one 1,000 yard season in his career signed an extremely player friendly contract worth $11 million. The tight end market became ridiculous with Julius Thomas hitting $9.2 million  year and Charles Clay and Jordan Cameron getting over 7 million a season. This just a year after the Saints fought with Jimmy Graham over making him worth more than $9 million. There is no comparison between the level of play.

Rodney Hudson became the highest priced center in the NFL while Mike Iupati reached the $8 million  year mark at guard. King Dunlap received a $7 million contract from San Diego. Devin McCourty received 9.6 million a year with a tremendous $22 million full guarantee. The only positions that for some reason had a problem hitting the big money were the pass rushers.

Looking at how things went down this year I have to believe that players will not concede on the summer time and in season extensions that usually happen. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is as good if not better than Suh, took a deal that pays him 6 million a year less than Suh. Chris Harris signed for less money and significantly less guarantees than a veteran like Flowers. These were players who were weeks away from free agency when they opted for their contracts.

Looking forward to 2016 there are a number of potential big time free agents. We have two premier quarterbacks that are going to be free agents in Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. Both players will cost a great deal to franchise and it seems clear after Ben Roethlisberger’s most recent extension that both will surpass Aaron Rodgers contract whenever they sign. If they hit free agency they may blow that contract away.

The big franchise players from this year of Justin Houston, Dez Bryant, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Demaryius Thomas should all refuse to sign their tenders unless they receive a no franchise tag designation for next year. If the team is going to extend them it’s going to have to be at free agent dollars not “we hold your rights” kind of prices. Given some of the deals signed this year these players should all receive close to record breaking contracts.

Some players likely cant avoid the tag- AJ Green, Julio Jones, Muhammad Wilkerson, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson- which is a sign of some of the small details in the new rookie wage scale that the union missed out on, but perhaps more of them will be more accepting of the franchise tag possibility if they want to run a two year risk.

The money isn’t drying out anytime soon. There are plenty of teams that didn’t “win” in free agency and will carry over millions to 2016 that they will try to spend. More and more teams are using short term veteran deals and favorable extension terms to go more year to year on the cap with the ability to turn over rosters far faster than in the past and to do it without having large amounts of dead money to compromise their spending.

Normally I would say that risk is far too high for the player to play things out, but in seeing this year’s free agency spending spree the reward is getting much bigger than it had been in the past. It should change the complexion of some of the extensions that we have seen happen in the past that are clearly favorable for the team.  Free agency may already be winding down but the next 6 months might be a very interesting time for contract negotiations for some big name players.

  • McGeorge

    As the Giants, If JPP threatens to sit, I’d see if I could get a good trade for him, or I’d let him sit. He had 1 good year out of three. This is a prove it year for him. No way I pay him more, and it’s not like he’s not getting paid this year.
    It also sets a policy and shows you mean business.

    • Tyler Ferree

      Not even, look where those sacks came from, 8.5 against teams that were poor at best in pass-pro, 2 in the finale against a flat Eagles team, and 2 against Jermey Parnell and Tyron Smith who was having issues in Pass-Pro earlier in the season. Realistically that was more a 6-7 sacks season accounting for his competition.

  • MachoMenos

    Comparing Cromartie and Flowers is just ridiculous. While both were castaways Flowers played at a Pro BOwl level while Cromartie did not. Also, King Dunlap’s deal doesnt even fall into the top 10 of LT money.

  • Something to consider about the players currently under franchise tags is this: Do their respective teams have another player who will be a free agent in 2016, and thus the teams have to figure out which players gets the tag that year?

    In the case of Jason Pierre-Paul, he and his agent could consider that Eli Manning will be a free agent and how likely the Giants are to get Eli signed to an extension. Given the money Ben Roethlisberger got, and how much premium teams place on QBs, Eli and his agent have some leverage. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Eli and his agent try to force the Giants’ hand into using the tag. If that were to happen, and Pierre-Paul isn’t signed to an extension by that point, he’s free to go, regardless of what conditions are placed on him signing the current tender.

    A similar situation is in place in Denver, as Von Miller becomes a free agent and is considered one of the best defensive players in the game. As with Eli, Miller and his agent likely expect the Broncos to use the tag, so they can play the waiting game as well. Demaryius Thomas and his agent likely know this, so they have leverage in that the Broncos can only tag one elite player.

    That’s not to say Pierre-Paul and Thomas should just sign their tenders, discussion over. Obviously, they will wait until the last possible day to sign them, and put pressure on their teams to give them the extensions they want. But if they don’t sign extensions by the time the end of the 2015 NFL year approaches, chances are their respective teams will have to let them walk, because they each have another player who the team will likely want to tag.

    KC and Dallas are different stories. Dallas has no pending FAs in 2016 worthy of a tag, and Eric Berry’s health issues mean KC doesn’t have other such FAs. Bryant and Houston, thus, have added motivation for requesting the teams not use the tag again.

    • McGeorge

      Bob,
      In the case of JPP, I think the Giants will be better placed to evaluate JPPs value after 2015. Last year was the first in 3 that he was productive. Can he repeat?
      As for Eli, I’d franchise him before JPP.
      I would try to keep Eli, and franchise him for a year, then he will be 36 at the start of 2017. At that point his value begins to drop quickly.
      I don’t see him having leverage, I see the Giants.
      If the Giants franchise him (and another team can claim him for two first round picks – go ahead!) then he has to perform to show his next team that he’s still good.

      I think it would make sense to trade him. The Giants aren’t going anywhere. Trade him for a couple of good first round picks. (Tampa, Titans, Redskins)

      • I agree with you that the Giants are evaluating JPP before they extend him. Franchising Eli would make sense, but with that said, another quality season from JPP can put the Giants in a tough position, because then they would have to seriously think about an extension.

        The Broncos are a bit different from the Giants, in that if they do not get Thomas signed to an extension, then they have two elite players in the prime of their careers. With that said, I expect the Broncos to get a deal done with Thomas, just as they did with Ryan Clady, but they won’t be able to get a deep discount like they arguably did with Chris Harris. They will certainly try to structure the contract similar to Clady’s, with injury-only guarantees and a signing bonus that doesn’t leave too much dead money, but they certainly won’t get Thomas to take a low APY salary. Clady took $10.5M APY, just $1M less per year than Joe Thomas’ deal at the time, so it’s easy to see Demaryius Thomas (and Bryant, for that matter) at least getting $14.5M APY, and highly likely getting $15M.

        • mike jones

          The giants are probably better off if JPP falls flat on his face. Then take a shot and extend him anyway with some upside performance bonuses. If he somehow pulls out 10 sacks he’ll command a ton of money because of that one one monster JJ Watt/Reggie White like year.

          • McGeorge

            If he falls flat on his face, then is he a player you want? Sure I’d keep him for a low price, but he would walk and take a one year prove it deal.

            If JPP has a good, but not great year, he’ll ask for too much, and end up leaving, as do many players (Mike Wallace for example when with Pittsburgh). The Giants will get a 3rd round compensatory pick.

            If he has a great year, then it’s a tough decision, because is it for real and sustainable? Or is it a peak, followed by some good but not great years.

        • McGeorge

          If JPP has a good season (better than this year), I assume the Giants would want to work out a long term contract. They wouldn’t want to franchise him again because franchising a player 2 years in a row causes an escalator to kick in. I think its a 20% boost (but am not sure).

          Given Eli’s age, I would franchise him (using the offer that another team can take him for two #1 picks). Then he will be 36.

  • mike jones

    I’m not sure we ever had someone like Suh hit FA. Manning, as you said, was a special case.

    Mario had overall #1 pedigree, but was never approaching best at his position. He was top 10, maybe top 8 some seasons. Never put up the total pressure numbers other guys did like the other other outside pressure guys did though. Not saying Suh is worth what he got, just that I don’t recall anyone ever thinking mario williams was anywhere near best at his position at the time. its not 202 20 hindsight that the bills made a bad deal now. we were all saying it back then.

    best at position guys never hit FA. those guys never hit FA. unless, peyton neck + andrew luck. or LIONS cap management.

    it just doesn’t happen. they get franchised. then a deal is made. that is the nfl. that is how the owners have stacked the deck. mario was not that good. that was why he made it to FA.

    mario got that much money because he wasn’t that good and hte texans didn’t want him, and the bills are the bills.